By Deborah D. Thornton
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 10 dams along the Iowa portion of the Mississippi River and two on the Des Moines River could be retrofitted with hydroelectric turbines having a capacity of 680 megawatts — enough electricity to power about 20 percent of the homes in Iowa, with low-cost, renewable energy.
This does not include electricity which could be generated at even smaller dams. Unfortunately, no new licenses have been issued in Iowa by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since 2010.
The Nashua Mill Dam and Powerhouse, operational in May of 2012, is an excellent example of the problems and success of retrofitting a smaller dam for electricity generation. The city began the process in 2006, with the final license and approval over six years later, after “monstrous amounts of paperwork,” according to Nashua Mayor John Phyfe. Construction took only about 18 months and cost approximately $2.6 million. It is capable of generating just under 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year — enough power for about 360 homes. The electricity is primarily used for city facilities, with extra power sold back to the grid at 4.5 cents/kWh, and renewable energy incentives of 2.8 cents/kwh. The tax incentive is the same one used by the wind industry.
The FERC analysis of the project costs showed that in the first year alone there would be a savings of more than $78,000 to the city, compared to outside power. The positive cash flow will be almost $241,000 a year, once the bonds are paid off, with an expected life of another 30 years after that.
Environmental concerns about hydroelectric power include water temperature and oxygen levels for fish. Power lines must not harm migratory birds. The Indiana bat required special consideration. Plants of concern were the Western prairie orchid and prairie bush clover, though not found on site.
The Nashua Powerhouse is one example of reliable, inexpensive power and energy independence — and how the regulatory process delays its use and drives up the cost. Fortunately, many environmental groups are now recognizing that it makes both environmental and economic sense to use the energy potential at dams that are already in place. The Hydropower Reform Coalition recently agreed that if a dam “is not likely to go away anytime soon, why not use it for another useful purpose?”
If we are concerned about renewable energy, we must insist that FERC reduce onerous regulations and support hydroelectric power.
Deborah D. Thornton is a research analyst at Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, www.LimitedGovernment.org. Comments: Public.Interest.Institute@LimitedGovernment.org.